The biggest barrier to helping the poor… …is misunderstanding Jesus’ words Efforts to help victims

of the recent famine in Somalia have been thwarted, in part, by the complex political situation that prevents aid from reaching the people in need. In many war-torn countries, this is often the case. But a far greater barrier exists when it comes to helping the poor. This barrier is reinforced each time a well-meaning Christians lean back and say, “Well, you can’t solve the problem. After all, Jesus said ‘the poor will always be with us.’” Their implication is that Jesus said it was ok to be indifferent or not attempt to help the needy—a message which completely contradicts countless verses in Scripture. This misquoted and mis-interpreted scripture has done far more to hurt the world’s poor than any political or military barriers. It is Christian indifference and apathy (often ironically disguised as “busyness”) that keeps us from the joyful task of being generous to the poor. While the poor are still among us, we are actually making great progress in lessening extreme poverty and disease. (Check out http://www.live58.org for details) The context of Jesus’ remark is this: he’s at a dinner party where a woman (the gospel of John identifies her as Mary, sister of Martha and Lazurus), breaks open a jar of very expensive perfume and pours it out on Jesus. The disciples (again, John points to a specific disciple, Judas Iscariot) grumble about what a waste of money this is, when the perfume could have been sold and the money given to the poor. After all, just a few verses prior, Jesus had told them what they did for the least, they did for him. (see Matthew 25: 31-46) But at this dinner party, Jesus corrects the disciples who are busy calculating the financial cost of Mary’s worship, without remembering the cost that Jesus was going to pay in a few days. They completely miss, because of their stingy hearts, the significance of what she did. “When Jesus realized what was going on, he intervened. "Why are you giving this woman a hard time? She has just done something wonderfully significant for me. You will have the poor with you every day for the rest of your lives, but not me. When she poured this perfume on my body, what she really did was anoint me for burial” (Matthew 26: 10-12, The Message). Two points of context are critical to understand this passage. First, Jesus was a Jewish rabbi. The rabbinical teaching style was different from our western method, in which the teacher spits out facts, the students listen and regurgitate those facts. Rather, the ancient Jewish method of teaching involved answering questions with questions, alluding to other sources, using illustrations that were sometimes not explained (parables). Jesus, like all rabbis of his day, made a habit of quoting the Hebrew Scriptures. Even quoting a fragment of an Old Testament verse was understood to be a way of referring to that snippet’s entire context.

So many scholars believe that Jesus used that phrase as “code” for a longer passage, in Deuteronomy 15:10-11: “Give freely and spontaneously. Don't have a stingy heart. The way you handle matters like this triggers GOD, your God's, blessing in everything you do, all your work and ventures. There are always going to be poor and needy people among you. So I command you: Always be generous, open purse and hands, give to your neighbors in trouble, your poor and hurting neighbors.” That is exactly the opposite of how apathetic Christians have interpreted Jesus’ words. Rather than seeing Jesus’ quote of an Old Testament scripture as an admonition to care for the poor, they have twisted it into Jesus somehow telling them to just throw up their hands and not try to help those in need. The chapter before this, Matthew 25, says just the opposite—that we should feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and so on. We will go to great lengths to stay stuck. Dr. Scott C. Todd, in his book, Fast Living, says of this passage: “The unexpected cost would be paid in children’s lives two thousand years later as a result of fatalistic thinking because followers of Jesus would accept a peculiar misinterpretation of His words. Such an odd interpretation that doesn’t line up with any of Jesus’ teachings or His actions concerning the poor. Jesus defended Mary and confronted the greed of Judas.” This leads to our second point of context: Jesus was speaking to specific people about a specific situation. Todd argues that Jesus was speaking specifically to Judas and the other disciples who pretended to be concerned about the poor, when really they were being snarky. Todd writes: “Jesus did not say the poor would always be with us. He wasn’t talking to us. He wasn’t talking to you. He wasn’t talking to me. … when Jesus spoke at that party, in that perfume-filled room, it was to Judas and maybe to the others in the room three days before His death. He told Judas and company that they would always have opportunities to help the poor, but this was one of their last chances to worship Him personally—in His physical presence. Jesus was saying, “I’m about to die.” He did not ordain endless poverty.”

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